When Music Takes the Stand: A Content Analysis of How Courts Use and Misuse Rap Lyrics in Criminal Cases
78 Pages Posted: 8 May 2019
Date Written: February 22, 2019
Hip-hop’s popularity has steadily increased since the late 1980s, with it becoming the most streamed genre of music in 2017. This rise in popularity is matched by an increase in the number of criminal court cases which implement one of hip-hop culture’s primary features, rap music, as evidence. In order to build upon prior research regarding rap’s implications in legal proceedings and begin to understand what impact this phenomenon might be having, this study systematically examines how rap lyrics were used in 160 state and federal criminal cases over a five-year period of time. Using qualitative content analysis, we found that rap evidence was proffered in these cases in one or more of five distinct ways: (1) to prove gang affiliation for sentencing enhancement purposes; (2) as circumstantial evidence of the commission of a crime; (3) as direct evidence of having communicated a threat; (4) to prove motive, knowledge, intent, identity, or character; or (5) to establish what incited the commission of a crime. Each of these themes was examined and analyzed with respect to the function of rap evidence within each case. The analyses demonstrate that rap evidence is routinely admitted against defendants in criminal proceedings, even in cases in which the prejudicial effect of such evidence clearly outweighs its probative value. Conversely, courts fail to consider rap lyric evidence when offered by defendants to exculpate themselves or mitigate their potential criminal liability. We offer several public policy recommendation to address these concerns.
Keywords: rap, race and crime, evidence
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